The stomach is the highest area of nerves outside of the brain and is sometimes called the second brain. The stomach’s stress response inhibits the digestive system while the relaxation response activates it, that is why the relaxation response is often called rest and digest.
When the stress response is activated, digestion is suppressed so the body can reroute its resources to trigger fight or flight. The central nervous system shuts down digestion by slowing contractions of digestive muscles and decreasing secretions for digestion.
If the stress response happens occasionally, the body recovers and continues with normal functioning. If the stress response is triggered too often, the body has a harder time recovering. This impedes the flow of digestion and can cause stomach upset. It can also contribute to the development of irritable bowel syndrome and/or ulcers.
The digestive system cannot function properly with too much stress or stimulation. Thus, we need to practise activating the relaxation response as often as we can.
According to Natalie Murray, health coach and director of the Life Store Wellness Boutique, stress can cause acid reflux, bloating, butterflies, constipation, cramps, diarrhoea, excess stomach acid, gas, heartburn, increase/decrease in appetite, indigestion, inflammation, nausea, stomach pain/discomfort.
However, Murray said to improve stress that will eventually improve stomach health, people can teach the body how to better manage stressful situations or challenges. These methods include exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and eliminating highly processed foods.
Here are some tips for learning how to manage stress and decrease symptoms affecting the digestive system:
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Exercise is one of the best things you can do to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion. It improves hormonal balance and stimulates the release of endorphins that improve mood and decrease stress.
Hyperventilation and over breathing can cause excess air, leading to bloating, gas, pain and stomach discomfort. Relaxed breathing can stop this. Slow breathing also engages the body’s relaxation response and lowers the stress response.
Relaxation techniques can be used to retrain your body’s response to stress. You can do things such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, gut-directed hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, or biofeedback.
Eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day, and avoiding skipping any meals. This helps to alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, constipation, bloating, diarrhoea, and stomach cramping. Waiting too long to eat, not eating enough, or having an unbalanced food intake: that is not eating enough then eating large amounts in one sitting can cause more digestive problems.
Eating regularly also helps to prevent ravenous hunger that often leads to eating quickly and eating past comfortable fullness. It may help to find a quiet place to relax and to eat at a normal pace.
KEEP A DAILY JOURNAL
Keep track of what you eat and what your symptoms are to look for patterns. This may help you identify foods that irritate your stomach.
COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY
This is often done as one-on-one training with a therapist for stress management skills and emotional regulation. It could also help you pinpoint psychological conditions contributing to GI stress.
In many studies, subject’s GI problems worsened when they had negative perceptions of stressful events. Before emotionally reacting to a situation, take a step back, breathe, and ask yourself how you can see the situation as an opportunity instead of a threat.
In some cases, you also may want to see a doctor to rule out other causes of intestinal discomfort, such as a virus, bacteria, lactose intolerance, allergies, acid reflux, or a more serious condition. A doctor or nutritionist may also have more information on fibre supplements or probiotics that can help regulate digestive health.